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Michelle Wie's first coach: Twenty minutes with Casey Nakama

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

We've all heard of Michelle Wie, the 16-year-old who's busy taking the golf world by storm. She turned pro recently, signing endorsement deals to the tune of an estimated $10 million a year, instantly becoming not just one of the highest-paid female golfers on the planet, but one of the highest-paid female athletes, period.

But have you heard of Casey Nakama, one of the reasons for her success? Nakama, who runs the Casey Nakama Golf Development Center at the Olomana Golf Links in Honolulu, was Wie's first formal instructor. When he began teaching Wie, she was just another 10-year-old. By the time he was finished, she was Hawaii's most promising rising star - the youngest to qualify for the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links at age 10, winning the prestigious Jennie K. Wilson Invitational at age 11, winning the 2001 HSWGA Stroke-Play Championship at age 11, and qualifying for an LPGA event (the 2002 Takefuji Classic, at age 12). She'd even turned down an invitation to appear on Leno. Nakama was kind enough to take some time out of his teaching schedule to talk to me about Michelle Wie, her swing, and the impact she's having on golf.

Q: You were Michelle's first formal instructor, is that right?

A: Right. She was just turning 10, she was still nine years old, and I worked with her until she turned 13.

Q: What was your first impression of her?

A: Just that she was tall for her age, since she was only 9, 10. But she wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary, she wasn't one of the better players. It's just that she was a little bit stronger than most of the girls.

What was really unusual about her, was that she was so driven at what she did. Even at 10 years old, she didn't mind practicing every day. She was just determined to do whatever we were working on. We would make a swing adjustment, and she would work on it and come back in three or four days and say, "I think I got it, Casey." That work ethic, it separates her from a lot of the other players.

After a while, once we got her into some competitions, then she liked it even more, she liked competing because it tested her skills. Even at 11 years old, she got really intense. Normal childhood, all that kind of stuff, that doesn't apply to her. We knew she was different.

When you look at her swing now, do you notice the changes from her work with Leadbetter and Gilchrist?

A: Yeah, I think they've mechanized her swing a little bit more. I always want players to have feel in their movement, I want their swing to be a little bit more flowing. They seem to be real mechanical and position-oriented. So it's a lot stiffer now in how she's swinging it.

Q: You don't sound really enthusiastic about that change?

A: I think it's helped her just with information, as far as technical information making her swing a little bit better, but when you eventually have to put things together in this game, when you have a player that's more mechanical than a feel player, the feel player will always play better. There's still an art in this game, it has to do with feel and flow versus just being mechanically solid.

Q: Do you still see your influence in her swing?

A: Oh yeah, the way she sets up to the ball, how she keeps her arms away from her body, and wide, that was one thing that we always stressed because she was so tall. We always kept it wide, and kept the arc really big, big shoulder turn, kept the arms extended. That was something that I worked on from the very start because of her height. That's one thing I hope they don't change.

She played in the (2002) Sony Open, the junior event that's before the Sony Open in Hawaii, and she was only 12 years old at the time. She was paired with the pros, and at that time we had her swinging her best. When she played with Fred Couples and Tom Lehman and all those guys, they all said, "Whatever you do, don't change your swing."

I caddied for her at the (2002) Takefuji Classic, her first tournament with the LPGA, and at that time too, her swing was functioning really well. When we stood on the range and hit some balls, the LGPA women stopped and they were watching her. For 12 years old she was really impressive.

Q: Do you have any memorable stories about your lessons with her?

A: What really made me feel that she was going to be different was her first bunker lesson. I had hit some shots for her, to explain what the club has to do. So she watched a few shots and then she jumped in, and after about the third swing, she was making the correct movement. I think she was only 10 years old. That's when I really remember shaking my head - I thought that was really unusual for a player to be able to do that.

Q: What do you think about Michelle's decision to turn pro?

A: I think it was the right time for her to turn pro. I don't think there was anything else for her to prove as an amateur. Her draw at a tournament, the media attention that she gets, a lot of people want to see her play. I think it's the right time, basically there's nothing for her to prove as an amateur.

Q: What do you think about the incident at her first pro tournament, the Samsung World Championship, in which she was disqualified?

A: As a player, we are responsible for the rules. The bottom line is she is responsible for that, between her and her caddy, so it should've never happened. But - the process of what had happened, Michael Bamberger, if he knew golf as much as they said he did, he wrote a book and caddied for a year, he knew that he should've made that call before the end of that day. He knew if he waited until after the fact then he was going to get her disqualified.

So if he was really interested in watching her play and watching her develop, he should've said something at the end of the round before she signed that card. That was just poor judgment on his part. He should've made that call before Saturday or just not said anything at all. The timing of the whole thing was wrong.

Q: How about the incident at the 2003 U.S. Women's Open, where LPGA pro Danielle Ammaccapane repeatedly complained to Michelle and her father about walking in her line of vision?

A: Some players are picky about movement. But one thing you have to remember is, Michelle hits her ball so much farther than them that after they hit, she has to walk up 40 or 50 yards, and get herself ready, and she's already on the clock. The rules state that once you're on the clock you only have 45 seconds to hit your shot. So she was starting to creep up alongside the rough to get closer to her ball, and that's when Ammaccapane said "You're walking up ahead of us."

Q: I've read reports that Ammaccapane actually pushed Michelle, is that true?

A: I don't think they had any contact.

One thing I'd just like to say is if any of the women have any animosity toward Michelle, they should just be quiet, because Michelle is going to bring so much more money to the LPGA Tour as far as TV money. Just like what Tiger did to the men's tour. They shouldn't say anything because she's going to help the Tour, and the LGPA is not the healthiest tour. They should just realize it's all in good competition and it'll bring more money for them.

Q: Do you have other students that show as much promise as Michelle, other stars we should keep an eye on?

A: Michelle was the youngest at 10 years old to qualify for the Public Links, but this past year we had a girl, Cyd Okino, who qualified at age 11. She also went to play at the U.S. Women's Team Championship in South Carolina. A lot of people are keeping an eye on her because she won the Hawaii State Women's Match Play Championship at 11, which broke some records.

Q: What advice do you have for parents looking to get their kids started in golf?

A: They've got to get in a program that teaches them the rules correctly, and they've got to have fun playing. If it gets to be a serious program at 8, 9 years old, that's crazy. Golf just takes too much practice to put the grind on at that age. You'll have some players with more mental ability to be able to concentrate and practice a little bit more, but at the beginning, my suggestion is just to keep it fun.

Q: Do you have more boys now or girls in your program?

A: You know, we just had a TV interview about this. In the past year, we've had increased enrollment in girls. When you enter our program, you have to go through a series of classes, and it's always been about 20 percent, 30 percent girls. But this year it's gone up to 50 percent and I've had a class with more girls than boys - 15 girls, three boys, something like that. That was really different, yeah.

Q: Do you attribute that to Michelle?

A: Absolutely. I think some of the girls say, "Let me try" now. We hear about Michelle so often here, the amount of coverage she gets in Hawaii is unbelievable. Everything she does is on the news. So a lot of the younger girls want to try. Now it seems to be pretty cool to play golf.

Jennifer MarioJennifer Mario, Contributor

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.

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